When a production of “King Lear” begins in a bathroom, with opening dialogue delivered while the characters urinate, it’s obvious the director wants to shock. Bold and brash throughout, reveling in vulgarity and violence, Robert Falls’ high-concept “Lear” at Chicago’s Goodman obeys the weight of this sad time, creating (or, rather, reflecting) a contemporary world so dark that the king’s madness seems a rational, even inevitable response. In the end, though, while Falls consistently intrigues with rich, modern references, it feels like he’s rubbing the audience’s noses in dirt without delivering as forcefully the depths of compassion and hope that Shakespeare built into this tragedy.
Much of Falls’ creativity has landed on the elements of decadence, decay and death. He begins with a banquet scene where partiers dance to hip-hop music while waving machine guns, the frenetic antics already reflecting a fraying society. It brings to mind Castro’s Cuba, a subtle connection that continues to intrigue as the aging Lear (Stacy Keach) grabs at his heart after trying to dance — he can’t quite party like he used to — and then divides up his kingdom by dishing out large pieces of a cake baked to mirror its geography.
Soon after, a scene starts with Lear’s oldest daughter, Goneril (Kim Martin-Cotten), being orally serviced underneath her mink coat. Images that clearly reflect a bombed-out Iraq permeate the latter half of the play, with a hooded prisoner being marshaled across the stage and Walt Spangler’s set design displaying cars torn in half and tossed on their sides. Falls even adds a couple of onstage strangling scenes not called for in the text, lingering on these to make sure nobody thinks murder is quick and easy. (Auds concerned about being spat on as people choke to death should avoid the front rows.)
While these scenes, along with Falls’ sometimes immoderate trimming, are destined to infuriate those who want their Shakespeare faithful, they are unquestionably lively, both provocative and evocative of a world that has lost its center and is spinning from tackiness to chaos and into — shall we say it? — civil war.
Alas, Falls doesn’t give the same attention to scenes that normally reflect a more redemptive narrative, not just to keep this from being too darn depressing but to bring forth the more poetic and philosophical aspects of Shakespeare’s masterwork.
Good guys like Kent (Steve Pickering) and Edgar (Joaquin Torres) come off uninterestingly, their loyalty to those who have wronged them present but fundamentally unexplored. The scene in which Edgar leads his blinded father, Gloucester (Edward Gero), to the edge of a precipice and convinces him he has jumped off is staged with nonchalant straightforwardness — without any of the theatrical imagination that permeates, for example, the scenes of Regan’s husband, Cornwall, a relatively minor character portrayed convincingly by Chris Genebach as a low-class, sadistic thug.
This is a world where the charismatic villain Edmund (Jonno Roberts, in a performance of terrific clarity) holds sway, even for much of the evening overshadowing Lear himself, despite the stout power brought to the role by Keach.
Yes, Keach also drops his underwear, and his madness (accompanied in the early storm scenes by Klezmer music) feels real and pathetic. But this is really a Lear for a different, more subtle interpretation of the play. In what should be the climactic sequences, Lear’s love for Cordelia (Laura Odeh) feels too small in scale, too rote, in a world where emotions mostly emerge drug-fueled and pushed to the extreme.
Ultimately, it seems Falls decided to use the play to comment on today’s world, rather than using the contempo parallels to dig deeper into the complexities of the language and relationships, or to explore a well-rounded view of human nature.
This is an ambitious, important production, but it also leaves one feeling pummeled into shellshock rather than stimulated by dark beauty. This “King Lear” provides more sensation than true artistic power.